Robert Gray’s newly released memoir, The Land I CameThrough Last, opens with a brief consideration of the problem he seems to have set himself throughout this remarkable account of his parents’ lives, namely the problem of how to examine their lives without becoming too engrossed in his own. As he puts it, ‘at first I thought I could treat my appearances in the book curtly, in the second person; autobiography seemed distasteful and too difficult’.
Speaking at the Melbourne Writers' Festival recently he mentioned that he wrote about five drafts of this book, and his record makes a fairly convincing argument for the kind of reliable memory he argues we must have ‘if we are to function’, separating fact from fiction with a clearheaded though merciful scepticism and a very fine poet’s eye for the accumulated pressure of detail.
This combination of quite clinical observation with passages of lyrical intensity makes this a powerful anti-Prelude; the growth of this poet’s mind seems to have been aided by pure chance, with an overdose in the fear department.
Gray was not supposed to live past 21 due to a hole in his heart, only to find years later, reluctantly reporting for the draft, that he seemed to have healed it himself by rigorous exercise. He and his mother shared the daily responsibility of managing his father’s chronic and recalcitrant alcoholism, with minimal support from his father’s wealthy extended family, and one wonders if Gray’s illness was a fiction sustained (and believed in, dysfunctionally) by his mother in order to maintain some interest on the part of the extended Gray clan in the fate of their brothers’ children.
At one point he and his brother were sent to a boys’ home due to a period of family insolvency; after his younger brother was sent home, Gray endured additional months waiting for a call back home that didn’t transpire until he became ill himself.
At fifteen he endured rejection by his mother when he abjured her Jehovah’s Witness faith, after witnessing, briefcase in hand, all over the local countryside.
And yet there is surprisingly little anger shown by Gray in this book towards his parents, organised religion or any other institutions, though he does admit to some confusion and a need for realignment of his place in the world when his misdiagnosis of heart disease is revealed.
He detours from this devastating account, punctuated throughout with painterly, poetic sketches of northern New South Wales and Sydney, to tell us of his friendship with Patrick White and offer his opinion on White’s work, his education, his role in Australian letters and his anger against the Australian upper class, perhaps feeling himself to have been in the unusual position of knowing the man first and the work much later.
Gray claims to have understood the presence in White of the same impulse to belittle others verbally that he had seen so often in his father : ‘their likeness I found in the practiced way both did sadistic things to people with words, out of what Patrick identified, for himself, as ‘self-loathing’. (My father’s cutting remarks could not compare in animus but were far more inventive than any I heard of by the famous writer.)’
But he decided that White was not the alcoholic he claimed to be while they were acquainted, and seems to enjoy pronouncing him ‘self-dramatising’.
There are some very funny and acerbic stories throughout this book, not just in the chapter on Patrick White and those following on the literary life Gray was led to (complete with some precious Chatwin anecdotes). While his is an unhappy family not quite like all the others, what is recovered from that unhappiness is a determination to see life as clearly as possible and not to be deceived by anything beneath the surface, especially in questions of philosophy.
The question should be raised whether Gray ever allows himself to feel anger in the writing of this book, or whether he simply fails to record it, as his calm and clinical focus on humour, intellectual nourishment and clearsightedness is a bit too unsentimental to be completely convincing at times, though it does make for a compelling biography. The drive seems not to be simply to understand or forgive his parents as such, but to be able to keep himself together, to identify in himself and others some responses to the world that will continue to keep him moving in some direction or other, despite the confusion around him.
There’s a rare moment of exultation in this well-composed stoicism described not long after Gray returns from the boys home:
‘I had read about Percy Cerutty, the eccentric coach of the Australian runners who were gold-medallists at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, a few years before – he had been told he was dying at the age of forty, but through exercise and diet recovered his health, won marathons, although much the oldest competitor, and began to teach his method. He had his athletes train barefooted, running up sandhills near his isolated camp, then all throwing themselves into the surf. In the evenings he gave talks on Greek philosophy.
So at weekends, I jogged for miles down the long beaches beyond the town, crossing an estuary on the railway trestle, after listening, as they did in films, with my ear to the line. In the evenings I read Heraclitus. “ This world, which is the same for all, no one of gods or men has made, but it was, is, and shall be, an ever living Fire, with portions of it kindling and portions going out.’
On those mornings, I ran until it seemed I tasted blood from my lungs, until my heart rose up and beat its drum in my ears. Vulnerability makes the senses tender. Resting by the lane, I saw the golden wall of the day, along with a rickety cantilever of ash-white smoke hung, from a single farmhouse. Before that, the crop was viridian; behind it, a solid mass of lavender-coloured forest was smeared with steam. On my way home, I crossed the golf course, over the lit dew in its myriads, as though walking the tips of candle flames. I was living on nothing; just the heat of life in a package of dust. Exultance welled up within my temporary, disbelieving heart.’
The violence in Gray’s life due to his father’s inability to manage alcohol seemed to have been spread across his family, as so often happens – his mother often hit his father when he was drunk, in sheer exasperation, and the belittling occurred on both sides; perhaps refraining from speculation on how his siblings felt about this gives the impression of a successful view from a single window, but one also has the impression that it is just bearable, so.
This is an account where deep affection is shown in spite of terrible emotional depredations, leaving Gray, surprisingly, with the ability to show care for both his parents in their old age (this was probably helped by his father being put into care towards his end, and his mother refusing to visit him.)
“To feel we have before us an effort at the truth adds another dimension to a work of art”, Gray writes on page 285, in a discussion of realism, but he might as well be writing of this biography, where the truth should be unbearable, but is made tenable by glittering, beautifully drawn surfaces and, to paraphrase Gray’s own words, an unwavering determination to achieve emotional resonance by referring to nature.
I’m looking forward to several readings of The Land I CameThrough Last, and to comparing it with Robert Adamson's biography at a later date (another of those books I talk about reading one day.)